Retail development has become a key feature of modern life, but precisely how it affects our choices as consumers is something of a conundrum. As recently as October last year - after a lengthy period of consultation with the industry - the UK Government's Competition Commission published a three-volume report on the supply of groceries from multiple supermarkets.
Whilst the report concluded that situations leading to a 'complex monopoly' were substantiated, it is clear that the Competition Commission found any remedies to be equally complex and not justified on cost grounds. Critically, the report found that "whether or not consumers have adequate choice will depend very much on local circumstances, which will vary widely from area to area".
It is in a bid to address this precise issue that the project has been initiated. Leader of the research project, Professor Clarke said that "we will try to unravel the impact of changes in retail competition on consumption patterns at the local level, essentially by exploring how 'choice' and 'competition' are experienced by consumers in the real world - since it is their experience of choice that matters", he said.
He indicated that this view fits with the findings of the Competition Commission report that concluded that there is 'unsatisfied demand for some fascias' in particular localities.
More than this, however, "what we want to do is get a handle on precisely how new store openings, together with their impact on existing stores, and associated in-store marketing, really affects our lifestyles as consumers in-the-round".
Over twenty years ago, one of the researchers, Professor Hallsworth conducted a detailed study of shopping provision and behaviour in the Portsmouth area, hot-on-the-heels of two new superstores opening that potentially affected consumer shopping choices at that time in a radical way. The researchers will be returning to Portsmouth to update the study, exploring how consumer perceptions of retail stores have changed over the last twenty or so years.
"That long-term dimension makes the research extremely relevant to both policy-makers and retail planners alike" said Professor Clarke, "since we are not aware of any other research that has attempted to look closely at these effects over such a lengthy period".
Professor Clarke added that the research does not stop there, since the team will also be combining the updated survey of residents' perceptions with very detailed 'soft' market research of particular households within different areas of Portsmouth. By doing this, they hope to be able to cast light on how the changing competitive provision of retailing locally interacts with the influence of individual household situation, such as their different lifestyles, incomes and patterns of mobility.
"This is a crucial area that has been treated in a simplistic way in the past, with many planning decisions being based on hunches or informed at best by abstract theoretical approaches" says Professor Clarke. "As far as we are concerned, the jury is still out and by taking a very detailed look at what is going on on-the-ground and understanding how these changes in retail provision fit into the reality of consumers lives over a long period, we think we will be in a much better position to assess how these changes have affected the lives and choices of groups from different social backgrounds", he said.
This research is funded by The Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. The ESRC invests more than £46 million every year in social science research. For more information, see www.esrc.ac.uk.
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